BEIJING — There are still many questions surrounding what happened in China’s capital last week, when a family of three plowed into a crowd of tourists and set their car on fire, killing themselves. China says the incident, which killed two and injured 40, was clearly a premeditated terrorist attack by members of an ethnic minority group from Xinjiang. But authorities insist the act is not linked to the country’s policies in the remote and restive region and are denouncing those who suggest otherwise.
It has been a week since a Uighur family, a husband, wife and mother, from China’s Xinjiang region drove into the country’s political heart of Tiananmen Square. And yet, little is known about those involved.
Chinese authorities say a network of other individuals from Xinjiang helped carry out what they say was a premeditated terrorist attack. The say fuel, knives and banners with extremist slogans were found in the car.
Hong Lei, spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said the incident was an attack against China's society.
He said, "We oppose to the adoption of a double standard in this issue. Some people link the attack with Chinese policy and even blame Chinese policy for the attack. We express strong dissatisfaction with that."
Hong's remarks were in response to a recent report by CNN that has enraged some in China. The report asked: “Tiananmen Crash: Terrorism or a Cry of Desperation?” China’s official Global Times called the report “way out of line.”
The Chinese government says it has brought opportunity and development to the mineral rich region of Xinjiang. But minorities there such as the Uighurs complain about oppressive controls on religion and culture.
In the wake of the Tiananmen incident, media outlets in China have been instructed to not publish anything other than official Xinhua reports. On China’s Twitter-like Weibo service, typically a vibrant forum for discussion, postings on Tiananmen are being censored almost as quickly as they are published. Even a release on state broadcaster CCTV’s English microblog, which had new details about the attack, was later removed.
Authorities have also been pressuring prominent Uighurs in the capital over the past few days.
Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economist based in Beijing, says authorities are threatening analysts like himself who dare to criticize Beijing's heavy-handed policies in Xinjiang.
Tohti says that on Saturday, plain-clothes police rammed his car and threatened him for speaking with news media.
He said, “They snatched my wife's phone, and also my phone. And they downloaded some material on the phone. In the midst they threatened me, they said they would kill me, that they would run my family over. And this was because I had said too many things to the media.”
Tohti says that while Uighurs are starting to talk more about social problems and their awareness is growing, the climate is still stifling.
“More and more people agree with what I am saying, but many do not dare [to re-Tweet me or show public appreciation] because free speech and expression of opinion, especially in Xinjiang, is very dangerous. I can understand them,” he said.
He says he continues to speak out, despite the threats, because he is determined to share his views.
Security analyst Rafeallo Pantucci says the Chinese government's response highlights its broader concern of preventing the individual grievances of groups of people from coalescing into a unified vision.
“When you are dealing with an individual who is angry at the system and expresses themselves in these ways, well that is an individual and he has his specific kind of grievances, if these grievances start to fuse into a bigger vision, a vision that says that we are an oppressed people, that we are living in an occupied country and we need to resist well then you are dealing with an issue that is trying to strike at the question of control and legitimacy of authority,” he said.
Acts of violence are not uncommon in China and many times they involve grievances with local officials or government policies. China spends more on internal defense that it does on its military.
Earlier this year, a man in southern China lit a bus on fire to vent his anger, killing 47 people, including himself.
But unlike the authorities' tight control over the Tiananmen story, in that case local government and state-media revealed thorough details about who the man was just hours after the incident occurred, including a suicide note he left behind. A week after the deadly incident in Tiananmen square, there remain many unanswered questions.